Ever fire up a game for the first time and within the first twenty or so minutes you know it’s got its hooks sunk into you? Return of the Obra Dinn had that effect on me, and that was only elevated by going into it mostly ignorant as to what the game is. The last thing I was expecting was a game to flex the parts of my brain involving deduction, logic and reasoning; parts I haven’t used since the first Pheonix Wright game. I lost track of how many times I’ve had lightbulb epiphanies or gasped with a sudden realization, a kind of excitement I seldom encounter in gaming. Obra Dinn doesn’t have a time limit, so meandering through the creaky ship at your own pace can be something of a relaxing experience - Though investigating a copious number of murders might shake those relaxed feelings.
I’d classify Return of the Obra Dinn as a nautical investigative story walker. The goal of the game is simple: A ship, the titular Obra Dinn, has returned from a voyage but is completely abandoned with apparent signs of foul play having taken place. Your character’s job is to investigate what happened to the ship, its crew and cargo. This may sound dull, but once you arrive on the ship you’re quick to find out there’s very little to go off of; a skeleton here, signs of a struggle there… The game takes place in a time when commerce and trade by sea was at its peak under monarchy crowns, so there’s no fingerprint dusting or CSI kits to be had here - That’s when the supplied compass comes into play. Using this apparently cursed/enchanted/mystical trinket, you can dip back in time when looking at a deceased person at the moment before/during when they died. Get your gumshoe hat on, because what occurs after is only the audio of the scene (voices, noises) followed by depositing you into the scene, though everything is at a stand still like a freeze frame. Using the previous sound clues and the locked-in-time environment around you, the task becomes finding out two whos’ and a how: Who is this person, who (or what, potentially) killed them, and how did they die?
The Obra Dinn is a big ship and an accordingly big crew to go along with it. While some members are easily identified by audible hints and where they work/reside on the ship, others aren’t so clear cut. Keeping track of the dozens of crew members isn’t a daunting pain thanks to the handy log book at your disposal, separating each major development with the Obra Dinn’s voyage as chapters that can be revisited or reviewed. This is beneficial because each scene only lets you explore a very limited portion of the ship, so narrowing down who and what you can investigate keeps one from tripping over every bit of available information. Getting lost on the ship isn’t a problem thanks to frequent backtracking and the supplied deck map, and even with the single toned color scheme of the graphics, everyone and everything can be clearly identified. In some cases where the scene has a lot of action going on, the graphical style can suffer a bit from visual pollution, but it’s not frequent enough to hamper your sleuthing.
Entering one scene tends to open up the fate of another person, and it won’t be long until the Obra Dinn resembles one giant crime scene with how many bodies there are. The log book doesn’t instantly indicate whether an assumption about a victim’s fate and their killer is correct or not, as getting ‘clumps’ of people correct will get them permanently pasted into the book to show that you’re right. Out of the the dozens of people on the ship, I had to resort to a guide to identify at least four of them and I felt frustrated from how the game was stretching regarding their identifiable clues. Still, being able to get through approximately 70% of the game before getting slowed down by the trickier victims shows that the game’s challenge curve is quite generous - If you know for what and where to look. I was genuinely excited whenever my newest guess would result in fanfare and correct confirmation without fail each and every time.
Going blind into Return of the Obra Dinn, I had little to no idea what I was getting into, especially not a nautical investigation with more than the dangers of mutiny going on. My biggest issue past my slight ire with the late game is with how disappointingly limp of a note the game ends on. One chapter in the log book remains locked until every other possible person is accounted for, and this last chapter only confirms what you might’ve already assumed happened that led to the later climax. As mentioned earlier, it got its hooks into me since during my breaks between playing, I was still thinking about theories and potential guesses for what happened to some of those sailors. Return of the Obra Dinn gets a big recommendation from me if you’re looking for a game that’s slower paced or will stoke the interest of the detective in all of us... Just bear in mind that there’s backtracking out the neck if your patience is rattled by that.